TOKYO — The United States and South Korea agreed Thursday to strengthen Seoul's jurisdiction over GIs charged with murder and rape in a bid to resolve one of the allies' most contentious issues.
Under the deal, U.S. military personnel accused in cases of murder and rape as well as arson, drug trafficking and eight other serious crimes will be turned over to South Korea after they are indicted. Currently, the hand-over occurs only if suspects are convicted and all appeals are exhausted.
The revised Status of Forces Agreement--which took 11 rounds of talks, stretching back to 1995, to negotiate--also allows South Korean police to arrest U.S. service personnel in cases of rape and murder and retain custody even before an indictment. And the accord commits the U.S. military to respect local environmental, labor and quarantine regulations.
In return, Seoul pledged to strengthen legal rights for accused U.S. troops, including the right to legal counsel, a speedy trial and certain detention safeguards.
The deal still faces final approval by both sides, but analysts said it should help address growing anti-American feelings in South Korea over the 37,000-strong U.S. military presence.
"There are still a lot of things to improve," said Lim Hyun Chin, professor of political sociology and international studies at Seoul University. "But it's a lot better than the last one."
South Koreans have criticized the existing agreement, or SOFA--last revised in 1991--as one-sided in Washington's favor and an infringement of Korean sovereignty. They also charge that the pact puts the country at a disadvantage relative to other military host countries, including Germany and Japan.
Several high-profile incidents in recent years have strained relations. In March, a U.S. serviceman accused of murdering a South Korean bar hostess fled U.S. detention shortly before he was due to stand trial in a Seoul court. He was eventually caught and sentenced to eight years in prison, subsequently reduced on appeal. Similar slayings occurred in 1996 and 1992.
The U.S. military was sharply criticized this year for dumping 24 gallons of formaldehyde into the Han River, a key source of drinking water for Seoul, although the U.S. denied that the chemical posed any threat.
Robert Dujarric, research fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, said that a SOFA revision has been far more crucial to Seoul than to Washington but that it was important to sort out the lingering problems. "In the background is the feeling that, if the U.S. wants to stay after North-South Korean tensions ease, [it had] better be sure Korea doesn't have any grudges," he said.
Seoul has also been concerned that Germany and Japan have a better deal with the Americans, Dujarric added, and at least in the case of Germany, that may be true. That said, Germany and South Korea have very different legal systems, and until recently there were legitimate concerns about South Korean police tactics given the nation's long history of military dictatorship.
"In Korea, if a suspect is acquitted, they can still be retried," he said. "That's double jeopardy in U.S. terms."
Civic groups remained critical of the deal. "The revised SOFA is nothing but an empty gift package with no real obligation on practical environmental issues, revision of criminal rights or facilities issues," the Korean Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice said in a statement.
Some ordinary South Koreans, however, expressed qualified support for the deal.
"I welcome the settlement of SOFA," said Park Yong Shik, a 47-year-old shipping company employee. "The fact that the U.S. lowered its big nose a bit is significant in that they recognized Korea's growing national strength. . . . I'm not sure if it's a substantial improvement, but I welcome the U.S. move to accommodate our demands."
Chi Jung Nam of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.